Crossing the River
Chapter 2, Pages 15-17
Encumbered by intermittent cloudbursts, they walked the nine miles of muddy road to
, De Berniere
sketching topographical and wooded trouble spots. Six miles short of their
destination -- John Howe having disappeared behind a stand of pines to relieve
himself -- De Berniere broached his solution to their third perceived
He began obliquely. “The mud makes its attempt to disguise our disguise.”
“Disguise? Mmm, yes. I take your meaning. That nestlecock in the wagon. Tearing suspicious, he was!”
“Indeed, Captain. Despite our dissembling endeavors we are conspicuously British! The behavior of the landlord, Jones, was further evidence.”
“Mmmm. Yes.” Centering his weight on the heels of his shoes, Browne rubbed his ample chin. He looked down his thin nose. “I suppose we shall have to do something! Our attire. As you say, it declares, ‘Arrest us!’ What's to do?”
“Sir. What would you suggest?”
Browne’s face flushed.
Lord, I’ve embarrassed him!
“When I ask you a question, ensign, I expect an immediate answer, not a question!”
“Be advised not to make game with me!”
“No sir, I would not, sir.”
“Answer the question! What have you to advise?”
“Nothing, sir, beyond what you yourself, I am certain, have contemplated.” He regarded Browne guilelessly.
Arms folded across his chest, Browne frowned. “Perhaps not, but I want to hear.”
“Yes sir. I should be happy. Permit me, however, to say that I was seeking by my question the opportunity to profit from your appreciation.”
“Of our situation.”
“Yes, yes. Go on.”
“Yes sir. I shall.” De Berniere straightened. “First, … do you not think, sir, that the less we converse with the local inhabitants the less we endanger ourselves?”
“Yet some intercourse must transpire?”
“Though I have knowledge of how the provincial speaks, I confess I have not the vocal facility to mimic him.”
“I couldn't speak his buggering tongue if life depended on it!” Staring over De Berniere's head, Browne scowled.
“Indeed, sir. You have identified our predicament precisely.”
Again Browne looked past him. De Berniere detected a blush of satisfaction. Proceed cautiously, he told himself.
“As to the matter of communication,” he continued, hesitantly, “have you considered Corporal Howe’s usefulness?”
“Howe? God’s life, explain yourself!”
“To act as our spokesman, if you will. Do you think he has the right necessities? He does have the common touch, I would say.”
Browne drew his lips back against his teeth. De Berniere waited for the idea to germinate.
“I admit that he does talk like them, being the lout that he is. As for knowing what to say, … what not to say …”
“He was quick to recognize the wagon driver's suspicions.”
“Yesss. But to know what to say … I suppose we could direct him beforehand, …”
“I conceive that we could.”
“But, damme, I do not like it! We should have to treat him as a bloody equal!” Browne’s scowl persisted.
“In public you mean.”
“He will eat with us in taverns.”
“If I catch your meaning, sir, he must be one of us, or rather, if he is to represent us in conversation, we must in our deportment be quite like him.”
The Captain harrumphed.
“I see,” De Berniere said. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“I do not fancy the arrangement, De Berniere, but, given the importance of our assignment, I accept its necessity.” Looking past the ensign, focusing on the pines into which Howe had disappeared, Browne glowered. “He has been my servant several months. I am not entirely satisfied with him. This will swell his head. He will come out of this expecting a commission, which if I have my say, he will not receive!”
“Little chance of that, I should think, sir.”
“I suspect not. I fancy not!” Browne answered. “Cuffy enlisted men do not become officers. But I will not tell him! What we have decided. Tell Howe what we have agreed upon, how he must proceed. Unless he gets above himself, I shall not speak to the man!”